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Subscribe 'Til It Hurts



When you live in the only place in the country where three faults meet, you should keep a larder stocked with gallons of water and food that will last until the Big One hits: Sardines, Spaghetti O's, Spam, Melba Toast.

You'll need to know the state of affairs -- road closures, estimates of when the power will come back on, damage reports, etc. --so you will need a news source. But right now, it doesn't look as if many of our local papers will outlast the sardines.

It is crunch time, people. For all of those who think a dollar for the Arcata Eye or the Ferndale Enterprise is a waste of money, ask yourself this: When you need information do you want to rely solely on Mike at KHUM for it? Where do you think Mike gets much of that information to begin with?

Today I will walk the walk and cough up my subscription for my local paper, the Eye. For the record, I am a north county snob, as one reader pointed out last month. To me, Garberville is like Brigadoon, the mystical land that appears only one day every 100 years. The world north of Willits and south of Scotia exists only when I drive up or down the 101. But each time I make that drive, I see communities of people who understand the need for locally-produced news. Residents support KMUD; as a result, they have a station that does a great job reporting the happenings around them. And they support a feisty little newspaper, the Independent. I could be wrong, but I think Garberville is now the last place in California where Dean Singleton's MediaNews empire has any real competition.

All newspapers are in trouble these days. The Eye just moved out of the first floor of Jacoby's Storehouse to smaller offices up at the top of the building. The already underpaid staff took pay cuts. And you might notice that the paper is smaller. Editor Kevin Hoover has said that so far he manages to pay his bills, but he can't look too far ahead.

Elsewhere, Hearst threatened last month to shutter the San Francisco Chronicle. I suspect the company thinks it can finally bust the union, but there is the real possibility that one of the country's most enlightened towns will have no real daily. The Rocky Mountain News just folded. I visited an old colleague last week who works at the San Diego Union-Tribune. He survived three rounds of layoffs, but his paper is up for sale and the future is uncertain. I sat in his dining room and held the Pulitzer he earned three years ago. And I wondered how a nation could let great journalists stand in an unemployment line.

On my campus, The Lumberjack newspaper tries to make each issue pay for itself, or at least within the small subsidy that comes from instruction-related student fees. So it ran 24-page issues two weeks in a row this term, and it hadn't had to run an issue that thin since I came on as adviser in 2005. And that's for an organization where most of the staff works for two units each semester that won't help their grade point average and the rest earn stipends too small to pay for the books they must buy for their classes.

People don't subscribe to free papers such as the Lumberjack or North Coast Journal. But if you see them as useful publications, as imperfect as you think they are, there is a way you can show your support. Notice who advertises and when you patronize those restaurants and stores, let them know that you notice their ads. Because they picked up your subscription fees with the advertising they bought.

If you don't like what your papers report, don't them let die. Force them to change. Scream and shout with letters and phone calls and e-mails to reporters and editors. Having a news source that angers you is better than not having one to scream at.

At the North Coast Coop, I am member 16663. That means that more than 16,000 people coughed up $25 for a membership that doesn't provide any real benefits, aside from 10 percent off one day a month. Most are people who just like the idea of having a non-profit source for their food.

When times are good, I would never equate a for-profit publication with a non-profit organization. But, as Barack Obama reminds us, these are extraordinary times. For all intents and purposes, right now our small publications are not-for-profit. For now, we need to support them as we do public radio. Or we will lose them.

That means that even if it is free and convenient to read the paper online, pay for a subscription. The paper comes in handy. You can't put the Internet over your head when it rains. You won't let your puppy pee on your computer. It won't protect your carpet when you paint and you can't use it for paper mache or cheap gift wrap.

But enough. I've got to dig up a check for the Eye. And I think my floor just shook. Time to buy more Spam.

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She subscribes to the Times-Standard, The New York Times and Salon.org. And now the Arcata Eye.

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